© Gordon Parks, 1961, “The Flavio Story”, Rio de Janeiro
#1: Twelve-year-old Flavio da Silva feeding his brother, Zacarias
#2: Flavio is weary from caring for his brothers and sisters
#3: Flavio’s brother Mario, crying after being bitten by a dog
#4: Flavio amuses smaller brothers and sisters
In 1961, Parks did a series for LIFE on the slums of Brazil and found himself in what he describes as “dead center in the worst poverty I have ever encountered—in the favela of Catacumba, a desolate mountainside outside of Rio de Janeiro.” In true Parks fashion, instead of giving a broad view without much depth, he focused on an individual affected by the larger story.
Find the whole LIFE magazine story here.
At just 12, Flavio da Silva was already dying, from tuberculosis. Flavio lived with his parents, brothers and sisters in a one-room shack. The images Parks created while living with the da Silva family illustrated the family’s reliance on their dying son. “What Flavio cared most about,” says Parks, “was that his younger brothers and sisters were taken care of. It was very noble of him. I definitely learned more from Flavio about character than Flavio learned from me.”
“I am not afraid of death.” he explained earnestly to Parks. “But what will they do after?”
After the story ran, LIFE readers contributed money to help with Flavio’s medical care. Parks says that people sent in roughly $30,000 to bring Flavio to America. “I went back to Brazil and the doctors told me that Flavio would die on my hands if I took him to America. I took him anyway and after living there for two years, he was cured.” When Flavio went back home to Brazil, Parks bought Flavio’s father a new truck with the money everyone had sent in, and then LIFE donated $25,000 so that Parks could help the family buy a new home.
When Parks checked on Flavio 15 years later, he found a hard-working family man—with an almost obsessive desire to return to the United States. Flavio believed that he was still remembered and that he still had friends who would help him make something more of himself.
Today, the obsession has faded. (…) Due to personal problems in his life, Flavio lost touch with Parks in 1987, but was reunited with the now 84-year-old photographer by telephone in 1996. They talked about Flavio’s family and his hard times and about the chances of getting together again.
“I’ll never forget you,” Flavio told the man who made him famous.
Parks went back to Brazil to visit Flavio for an special HBO was doing on the photographer in November 2000. Flavio has two young sons, a daughter and a grandchild. “Flavio’s very gracious,” Parks concludes. “He doesn’t beg for help or anything. He gave me a beautiful Bible when I went back to see him. He wants me to keep it for the rest of my life, which I will.” (+, +)
O CRUZEIRO vs LIFE MAGAZINE
Flavio was subjected to some kind of propaganda battle: On initial publication of Parks’s photographs, the Brazilian magazine “O Cruzeiro”, recognizing the documentation of Brazilian poverty as politically laden, “rushed one of its own photographers to New York City to do a similar story on a Puerto Rican family in the Wall Street district, and it depicted a sleeping child with cockroaches crawling over its face, and another child crying from hunger”.
TIME, sibling to LIFE in Luce’s media empire, quickley encountered and revealed the O Cruzeiro story as fabrication. Parks remarks the irony that “O Cruzeiro had felt it necessary to go to such lenghts. If it had gone to New York’s Harlem or Chicago’s South Side, they could have found a story as genuinely tragic as the one of the Catacumba”. (source)
(source: Brazilian magazine “O Cruzeiro” / Oct. 7, 1961)
You can find more scans of the “O Cruzeiro” story here.
The quotes come from the documentary “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks”. Read here a pdf excerpt from Park’s autobiography about meeting Flavio (thanks to Iconic Photos).
Find previous posts about Gordon Parks here and here.